I’m privileged to be kicking off this wonderful blog tour of Leslie Parry’s debut novel Church of Marvels thanks to Two Roads. Not only does this book have a gorgeous cover but Church of Marvels was a joy to read, giving you a taste of the 1890’s a fascinating time before the New York City we’re familiar with today.
The lovely author herself Leslie Parry is here to share her memories from which this story stemmed from…
“Ten years ago I spent the summer in New York with my sister. She had recently landed a gig as a cabaret singer on a cruise ship. It was hard to believe we wouldn’t see each other for half the year, so we decided to soak up as much of the city as we could. Together we wandered from the piers of Chelsea down to the Lower East Side, on the hunt for delicacies she would miss on her days at sea: gelato, spicy pickles, fried dumplings. En route we happened to stop at the Tenement Museum, where we toured a series of time-capsule apartments and learned about the lives of the city’s early immigrants. That afternoon I first heard the term night soiler. I bought a red notebook in the museum store, and on the corner of Orchard and Broome I scribbled down an image that flashed through my mind: night soiler finds newborn baby in a privy.
That summer I also happened to see a sideshow for the first time. I watched ordinary people pull off magnificent feats: eating light-bulbs, swallowing swords. I rode the gondola to Roosevelt Island and wandered around the ruins of an old smallpox hospital. I thought of my sister, who would soon be circling tropical isles, belting out show-tunes above a lobster buffet, having adventures without me. At the time she was living in Greenwich Village, just a few blocks away from where our great-grandfather’s family had settled in the 1880s. (We ourselves had grown up on the coast of California, a childhood spent rollerskating on the pier, feeding crumbs to the seagulls, putting on plays for our heroically patient family.) Once in a while, on our way to get coffee, we’d walk by the Parrys’ old home on Thirteenth Street. All I knew were their names (from a faded census sheet). I was curious about who they’d really been. They had come to New York from a small, rural town in Wales, speaking little to no English, and had found work as elevator operators and dressmakers. My great-grandfather started his working life as a child, as an errand boy for a bank. (Incidentally I became an errand girl, too, my first few years in New York. As a college student I interned at Late Night with Conan O’Brien and spent most afternoons running all through the boroughs, on a scavenger hunt for white cable-knit sweaters, glitter headbands, high heels for men’s feet. As I traversed the city, I occasionally wondered about him, the man who’d given me my name – what had he seen on these same streets?)
For my family, the city had been a portal, a place to launch their American lives, and after a few generations away, my sister and I had inexplicably returned. The summer passed; she would go on to the Bahamas, and I would move to Iowa. And yet I still thought back to that summer. I wondered about those people who were lost to history – the errand boys and night soilers and glass eaters and inmates – people whose stories would never be told. I began to write a few character sketches, just out of curiosity at first. Later, those sketches turned into stories, and eventually the stories braided together to become Church of Marvels.”
Leslie Parry is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has received an O. Henry Award, a National Magazine Award nomination and an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2013. Raised in Pasadena, California, she now lives in Chicago.
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